Omri Reis
Nov 24, 2016

Fintech seeks to curb Japan’s deadly corporate culture

The country's problem with overtime is well entrenched, but perhaps technology can create incentives to help restore work-life balance.

Omri Reis
Omri Reis

Last month’s harsh governmental report on karoshi (death from overwork) is still at the center of Japanese media attention. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s document reads almost like fiction: in almost a quarter of Japanese companies, workers clock more than 80 hours of overtime monthly, while about 12 per cent of employees confessed to an average of over 100 hours. Close to a third of these companies are media and technology companies—some of the most desired workplaces for Japan’s young talents. In total, 2,159 deaths are believed to be the cause of work-related stress, sleep deprivation and abuse.

In a recent Nippon News Network vox-pop survey, almost 40 per cent of respondents admitted they fail to document their overtime properly. Their main reasons were ambiguous guidelines, shame in falling behind on workload, and intimidating superiors. Hiroshi Kawahito, a Japanese labour law expert, says the problem is basically a catch-22: “If a company entrusts you with a lot of work, and then tells you to go home early, there is an inherent contradiction. Workers find it impossible to solve this contradiction both by re-distributing their workload and by setting rigid time frames.”

Dentsu's overtime controversy: Read all our ongoing coverage

In his bestseller 99% no kaisha ha iranai (99% of companies are useless), Japanese serial entrepreneur Takafumi Horie connects Japan’s overtime problem with its history of economic development. When Japan experienced its long period of postwar growth, workers believed their hard work would build a stronger economy, which would eventually reward them with fatter paychecks. After almost three lost decades and eroding wages, however, Japanese workers feel they have no choice but to drag behind on their work responsibilities, and they count on overtime as a much-needed income supplement. Career paths, then, can no longer go hand in hand with national purpose.

Horie shows how the correlation between national and personal success became an illusion. In his view, Japanese workers always go for job security, but the premium they end up paying is high—doing more and more tedious, boring work and gaining less money or opportunity in return. “People in this country always say they are busy” he claims, “but it is precisely because they are preoccupied with other people’s problems, instead of taking care of their own”. The time is ripe, he says, to do away with existing institutions. Today, Japan’s workers can use modern technology and make a living by proactively pursuing causes they actually care about.

The backlash against Japan’s conservative business practices is one of the drivers of this new technology. Yasufumi Minamitani, a young lawyer hailing from Tokyo’s top law school, founded his own startup to battle the common practice of unpaid overtime (sābisu zangyō). Minamitani claims many Japanese companies use ambiguous language such as “fixed overtime compensation” or “flexible working hours” to evade Japan’s progressive labour laws. His law firm, Nihon Legal Network, developed an app that keeps track of employees’ GPS location using their smartphones. At the end of the month, users get an alternative paycheck, including a detailed breakdown of their overtime compensation. In experiments Minamitani ran, differences of hundreds of dollars were found between users’ actual salaries and the money they were legally entitled to get. Overtime records are also saved on the firm’s servers, and according to Minamitani, this type of evidence can also hold up in court, in case the the user decides to file a lawsuit.

Ishida Kyohei, another associate from Minamitani’s firm, says the service is not as much about wage intricacies as it is about ideology. “In Japan, people believe that unpaid overtime is essential for growing Japan’s GDP, but innovation and creativity are the products of free time and leisure. If we keep going like this we will eventually lose our competitiveness. The government and media run campaigns against unpaid overtime but we think that only if every person gets this invoice once a month, things will start moving faster.”

Gathering evidence and filing lawsuits, however, is likely too confrontational for the average, risk-averse employee. So, Instead of rules and stipulations, Japan’s largest commercial bank Mitsubishi UFJ chose to change employees’ behaviour by creating incentives. This month, the bank launched OOIRI—a virtual currency system developed by Israeli fintech startup Zerobillbank. The system monitors employees’ location and time in order to reward them with an amount of OOIRI coins compatible with their working behaviour. Workers can then use this blockchain currency in local businesses through a digital wallet or exchange it with colleagues.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Both Minamitani, and Mitsubishi’s solutions are essentially harnessing the incentivising power of money to facilitate social, or cultural action. When project managers in Mitsubishi mine OOIRI coins, they actually evaluate the contribution of a specific project to the team’s development. When workers use the currency for local businesses, they empower and give broader meaning to the notion of “workplace”. And when people gift coins to colleagues, they actually build trust and reward teamwork. Watching one’s overtime translate into a formal invoice is not only about recognition of effort, but also a reminder of how expensive and counterproductive overtime can be for an organisation.

But let us go back to Horie’s important distinction between the national and the personal. If printing money is the government’s way to express the strength of its economy, mining OOIRI is Mitsubishi’s way to value its worth as a workplace. Less overtime translates to personal gain and workers become aware of the connection between work-life balance and a successful, global business. Personal and organisational well-being are finally intertwined again—all through the magic of monetary incentives.

Over 100 years ago, in The Philosophy of Money, sociologist George Simmel showed that as people become entrapped in complex networks of social exchange, their choices paradoxically multiply. Fintech allows individuals and communities in Japan to nurture more ties and affiliations, thus tweaking entrenched misconceptions about work and play. Ironically, the best thing workers in Japan can do for their country right now is to be local, global or individual—anything but Japanese.

Omri Reis is senior research executive at Flamingo Tokyo

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